Errol Morris’ The Thin Blue Line – There is something about Errol Morris’ directing that makes his films irresistible to me, something that enables him to elicit from the people he interviews a depth and a range of personality that other documentarians rarely if ever reach. His subjects, far more often than not, appear as full fledged characters, as people so full of idiosyncrasy and personality that the hardly seem believable. This film, his first, is no exception. There are characters, even relatively minor ones, who appear so vividly that I doubt I will ever be able to rid myself of them. His films seem less to explore a particular story or a particular person and more to use these things as the occasions to make a study of human nature in all its variety. This film is a marvelous example of his approach, and I recommend it very, very highly.
Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche New York – This is a difficult and elusive film in many ways, but I think that one of the keys to thinking through it is to take seriously the allusion that one of its characters makes to Franz Kafka’s The Trial, because I feel that both the film and the book orient themselves in a similar way in relation to reality and to the cultures in which they were created. They both employ a kind of mundane surrealism to explore the ways that our culture alienates us from ourselves, Kafka focusing on the influence of bureaucracy and legality and policing, and Kaufman focusing on the influence of our culture’s pervasive sense of isolation, neurosis, hypochondria, and self obsession. Even the endings are remarkably parallel, both heroes dying almost alone, accompanied only by virtual strangers, both still trying desperately, even until the end, to make sense of the lives that they have lived and the circumstances that have brought them to their deaths. The difference, I think, is that Kaufman’s hero dies naturally in the arms of a woman who cares about him, even if only very tangentially, a woman whose life he has even acted for a time, while Kafka’s hero is summarily executed by agents of an anonymous and uncaring judicial bureaucracy. There is a little hope in Kaufman, in other words, though it is a very little hope indeed.
David Shapiro’s Keep the River on Your Right – This film is as odd and as endearing and, well, as creepy as the man whose life it tells. Tobias Schneebaum is an intelligent and fascinating man, and his story is almost too strange to be true, but there is something about the way that he relates to the tribal peoples with whom he has lived over the years that seems to border on obsession or fetish, something that is not quite whole or balanced. The film is not less interesting for the reason, however, and it is well worth watching.
Hector Cruz Sandoval’s Kordavision – This film is about memory and retrospective and nostalgia. It is constantly recalling the earlier life of its protagonist, Korda, the famous photographer of the Cuban revolution, but even more, it is also constantly recalling the revolution itself, through the accounts of Korda and other photographers, through Sandoval’s contextual material, and through Castro himself. In doing so, it seeks to retell the revolution to an American audience in a way that might overturn longstanding misconceptions, and I think that it succeeds in this respect, at least to some extent, but its very success in telling Cuba’s past makes all the more obvious the uncertainty of Cuba’s present. Korda and his fellow photographers and even Castro himself are all so obviously playing the role of old men reminiscing about an earlier and a better time, so obviously living in a time that has long ago passed, and there is no sense that their roles are being taken on by those who are younger and more virile. The film’s effect, therefore, is truly nostalgic, a celebration of the past that can only ever figure the present in terms of loss.
Peter Mettler’s Petropolis – Because this film employs exclusively aerial shots and takes as its subject a massive ecological disaster, it is very reminiscent of Werner Herzog’s Lessons of Darkness, though without Herzog himself narrating chunks from the book Revelations in his ominous German accent. The film itself is primarily an aesthetic object rather than a film essay and provides only minimal information about the Alberta tar sands (though there is much more information in the extras), and I would say that the film suffers from some indecision in this question of whether to be aesthetic or informational. In my opinion, it needed either to be more fully aesthetic in its aims, as Lessons of Darkness is, leaving aside entirely the contextual subtitles at the beginning and the narrative voiceover at the end, or it needed to be more fully informative, fleshing out the subtitles and the voiceover to make them into useful context for the film rather than insufficient afterthoughts. In the end, however, the strength of the film is its cinematography, which is nothing short of amazing, and which will in itself certainly be worth any money that you might spend on a rental.
Michael Haneke’s The White Ribbon – I am still not sure that I have a real grasp on this film, though I have been talking about it with anyone who was willing for the better part of a week. The final crisis of the story is meant to be obscure, I think, and I can readily accept this, but I am not even certain of the reason for its obscurity, and I am also confused about the ambiguous but persistent links between the film’s primary story and the larger story of Germany entering into the First World War. That being said, the acting and the cinematography and the pacing are superb, and I would encourage you to see it, even if only for the chance that you might help me to understand it better.
Roman Polanski’s The Ninth Gate – This film is an adaption of Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s The Club Dumas, which I reviewed only very recently. Polansky takes my recommendations and removes one of its two storylines, and he follows this storyline fairly closely for the first part of the film, deviating only very significantly in its latter stages. It is precisely in these latter stages that the film breaks down, however. The dynamic between the hero and the young woman who embodies the devil never achieves the complexity that it does in the book, and it falls apart almost entirely at the end of the film. Much of the film is like this. It fails to capture the tone that makes the book so enjoyable and then hurries to an unsatisfying end. I did not find much to enjoy in it.